Slain Florida State University College of Law professor Dan Markel
Slain Florida State University College of Law professor Dan Markel ()

The prevailing wisdom holds that law professors are wise to wait until they earn tenure before they start sharing their opinions in the rough-and-tumble legal blogosphere. Dan Markel wasn’t interested in waiting around. He launched his pioneering PrawfsBlawg as soon as he landed an assistant professorship at Florida State University College of Law in 2005—even before teaching his first class.

So it seems fitting that the reaction to Markel’s July 20 shooting death was immediate, intense and to a large degree expressed online. Scores of law professors have shared their shock and grief on the Internet, and readers rushed to the PrawfsBlawg comments section to offer their thoughts, memories and condolences.

“A lot of people felt like they knew him. One of the reasons for that was that a blog conversation—the way Dan did it—was really just that: a conversation among friends and colleagues that is brought in through your computer that everyone can then participate in,” said Paul Horowitz, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, one of Markel’s 11 co-bloggers. “But the other reason is that he really did have a lot of friends. I swear to God, he knew everyone.”

According to Tallahassee police, Markel was shot in head at around 11 a.m. on July 19 at his house in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood; a neighbor called the police after hearing a “loud bang.” Markel died early the next day. Police said he was the intended target of the attack. They released few details of their investigation, and as of the afternoon of July 28 had made no arrest, although they released a photograph of a car they said was “seen in the area on the day of the crime.” They stressed that “this is only a vehicle of interest, as it may have been a resident, passerby or delivery driver.”

Markel’s prominence, and his enthusiastic networking with fellow academics, have made his death feel more personal for many in the law school world, said Paul Caron, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law who runs the Law Professor Blog Network. Since its founding, PrawfsBlawg—written by and for law professors—has grown into a robust place to share scholarship, hiring information, analysis of legal developments and trends in the legal academy.

“The Volokh Conspiracy [blog] was out there, but there really wasn’t the online community that has developed since,” said Matt Bodie, a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law who Markel recruited in 2005 as a co-blogger. “Dan really understood what the medium could become. He started this whole idea of guest bloggers and maintaining a community blog. He wasn’t afraid of it.”

Markel was convinced that blogging would help—not hinder—his career and those of his co-bloggers, who like him were young academics, said Ethan Leib, a professor at Fordham University School of Law who was Markel’s first recruit.

It’s not unusual for people to write online tributes to prominent academics who have passed away, but the response to Markel’s death has been on a different level. “Dan so enriched our academic community, welcoming me, and I expect many others, to the world of legal academia with enthusiasm and joy,” read one comment on PrawfsBlawg.

“He was a great law professor because you could tell he was interested in how it was done, how to do it right, and most importantly saw you, the student, actually out there doing it,” a former student added.

“Dan has always been a shining example of what is best in his generation of law teachers and scholars—brilliant, kind, insightful, energetic,” another comment read.

‘A CALLING TO CONNECT PEOPLE’

“He felt sort of a calling to connect people in this profession. The blog was a piece of that,” Caron said. “But he really was a one-of-a-kind person. When you’d see him in the hallway at [the Association of American Law Schools annual conference], it was like Elvis was in the building. There would be people to his left and right, and he’d be on his phone making arrangement for another meeting.”

Markel’s willingness to network with students and other professors—even those just starting out—and offer advice, assistance or encouragement is a recurring theme in the tributes that have popped up since his death.

“He was always the guy who organized the happy hours and made sure new people met more senior scholars,” Orin Kerr, a professor at George Washington University Law School, wrote on Volokh Conspiracy. “If you were a new professor who didn’t know anyone at a conference, Dan would take you under his wing and introduce you to everybody. He wanted everyone to schmooze and click with the rest of the group. The less comfortable a person felt, the more efforts Dan would make.”

Markel had helped organize a conference for criminal law professors at Rutgers School of Law–Newark on July 21. Some 60 of his colleagues took the opportunity to memorialize him and share their memories. Another memorial was held at Brooklyn Law School the following day, and a tribute is scheduled for Aug. 4 during the Southeastern Association of Law Schools annual conference.

“He was the center of a large web that will be very disconnected now,” Leib said.

Markel was no mere cheerleader for his colleagues, Caron said; he was also a serious and successful scholar who wasn’t afraid to tell people what he really thought. “There was definitely an edge with Dan,” Caron said. “He didn’t pull any punches.”

Above the Law founder David Lat, who has known Markel since their days at the Harvard Crimson newspaper during the mid-1990s, made a similar point on his own website.

“Dan was opinionated and outspoken. He wasn’t a wallflower, he wasn’t vanilla ice cream and he was committed to excellence, which he demanded from himself and from others,” Lat wrote. “That rubbed some people the wrong way—but to those of us who could take it, he was an invaluable source of honest perspectives.”

Friends have started the Dan Markel Memorial Fund at a site called Go Fund Me, with proceeds pledged to the support of his two young sons. The site raised more than $17,000 in its first day.